Interview with Bruce Davison
Interview: Bruce Davison
Motion picture, television, and Broadway actor Bruce Davison was born in Philadelphia in 1948. He began his theatrical experience at Pennsylvania State University and later attended the School of the Arts of New York University. His first professional roles included parts in, King Lear, and A Cry of Players at Lincoln Center. With New York theater experience behind him. he headed west where he debuted in Los Angeles in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial under the direction of Henry Fonda.
Mr. Davison’s film break came in 1969 in Last Summer. However, the film
which brought him to the attention of horror-film lovers everywhere was Willard (1971). As the shy, fumbling, under achiever Willard Stiles with an army of rats at his command, his order “Tear him up” to the rodents swarming over Ernest Borgnine has become a classic line of cinematic dialogue.
Other film roles followed: Been Down So Long It Looks like Up to Me (1971), Ulzana’s Raid and The Jerusalem File in 1972, Mame(1974), and
Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). In between films he worked in television in
varied roles such as a psychopathic killer in an episode of Lou Grant and a drenched lifeboat occupant in the T\r movie The Last Survivors..
In 1977, Bruce Davison played the choice part of the Waspish child-molester Clark Davis, incarcerated in New York’s infamous Tombs. This film, Short Eyes, was perhaps the most disturbing and horrifying movie of his career since it realistically depicted unspeakable prison conditions.
On January 9.19HO, the two-hour film adaptation of Ursula K. Le Gain’s futuristic novel The Lathe of Heaven was aired on PBS stations nationally with Bruce starring as George Orr, a young man whose dreams literally come true. In addition to being a science fiction enthusiast and a fan of Ms. Le Guin ‘s, Bruce especially enjoyed the part because of the unusual concepts the story presented.
He is best known for portraying John Merrick in the Broadway play The Elephant Man. It is an emotionally exhausting experience both for Mr. Davison and the audience
INTERVIEWER: I’m going to start this interview with questions about
Willard. Did you have any objections to working with die 500 rats in the
DAVISON: Just the normal ones. (Laughter) It was quite an interesting experience in that I went and auditioned and I met Ben right off the bat. He already had the job and I had to make certain the co-star liked me, so they put him on my shoulder and he sniffed in my ear and started to wash his hands. Everybody seemed to think we’d get along.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any casualties on the set?
DAVISON: No, none at all, which was surprising, considering all the stunts that had to be done. Not a lost rat. Of course, there was a rat wrangler from the SPCA to check that the animals were treated humanely.
INTERVIEWER: The basis for Willard, the book Ratman’s Notebooks by
INTERVIEWER: Was the original script for Willard different than the filmed version?
DAVISON: It was not too much different, but it was originally titled Ratman. The name was changed after the film was made.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a good relationship with Elsa Lanchester
and Ernest Borgnine on the set of Willard?
DAVISON: Yes, I liked them both very much. I haven’t seen either of them for quite a while now, which is the case lots of times when you work with people; you get very close and then you don’t see them for a long period of time. I saw Mr. Borgnine in the bank a while back and he seemed to be quite happy. He’s always busy. Elsa has a house out in Pacific Palisades.
INTERVIEWER: What was your opinion of Ben, the sequel to Willard?
DAVISON: Well, I didn’t think too much of it.
INTERVIEWER: It was rumored that you appeared as one of the World War II pilots returning to earth at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
DAVISON: That’s correct. I’m the one with the cap.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you accept a walk-on role when you were
used to much larger pans?
DAVISON: Well, Spielberg is a friend of mine, and lie said, “How would you like to come down for a day and gel off a flying saucer?” So I did. I was on my way to New York to do Short Eyes.
INTERVIEWER: In Short Eyes, what kind of preparation as an actor did
you do for the role of a .solitary Wasp in the house of detention?
DAVISON: I spent an awful lot of time working on the monologue by
myself. I don’t know if you know the section the monologue appears in,
but it lasts about fifteen minutes. I mostly just worked on it on my own,
and I went home to Philadelphia. I worked on it in an empty field for a
while. The atmosphere of the Tombs does more work than one wants it to
have done on one’s character. I think if the walls could scream, they
INTERVIEWER: I believe you play ed a psychopathic killer in an
episode of Lou Grant.
DAVISON: Yeah, I did.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever appeared in a horror/science fiction/
fantasy TV series?
DAVISON: No, I haven’t, that I can remember.
INTERVIEWER: Were you intrigued by the concept of The Lathe of Heaven, which is the idea of dreams changing reality?
DAVISON: Very much so. I loved Ursula’s novel, and I thought it was a wonderful story to be put on TV. I was really glad to be a part of it.
INTERVIEWER: What did you think of Kevin Conway, who portrayed Dr.
Haber in Lathe?
DAVISON: Well, I know Kevin from a number of years back. We did plays
that ran into each other in the Westwood Playhouse; he was doing Red
Hider and I was doing Little Foxes. I’ve always admired his work, and I
looked forward to working with him. I was delighted he was Dr. Haber. It
was a lot of fun working with him down in Dallas, especially during the
“gray” scenes. (Note: At one point in The Lathe of Heaven, Dr. Haber
commands George Orr, whose dreams change reality, to dream of a world where there is no prejudice. When George wakes up, he finds that everyone’s skin tone is now gray. This is what Mr. Davison means
when he speaks of the “gray” scenes.)
INTERVIEWER: How long was the shooting schedule for The Lathe of
Heaven, and where was it filmed?
DAVISON: I can’t remember the shooting schedule exactly, I think it was live weeks. It was shot in Dallas, in Fort Worth, and just a bit up in San Francisco.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think of intelligent science fiction movies
such as The Lathe of Heaven as opposed to the currently popular space operas such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica?
DAVISON: That was my one real intrigue to do The Lathe of Heaven
because it wasn’t a space opera. It dealt with human behavior rather
than special mechanics. It was what they now call “speculative fiction.”
INTERVIEWER: Were you pleased with the finished production of The
Lithe of Heaven?
DAVISON: I thought it was good. I’ve always been a stickler for different sorts of detail that tend to wash out during the project. I’ve never been totally happy with anything, per se.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your role in The Elephant
DAVISON: John Merrick is a person who emerges from within a horrendously deformed shell into a very pure and heroic soul. It’s about a
man who is deformed hut is also quite a human being.
INTERVIEWER: Would you consider your role in The Elephant Man to
be physically demanding?
DAVISON: Oh, yes. Yes, and I have the backache to prove it. (Laughter)
INTERVIEWER: What hits given yon the strength to play so many
disturbed characters when there is the possibility of being typecast?
DAVISON: Well, it’s better to be typecast than not cast. Seeing that
I’ve gotten a lot of that from Willard, my career has son of gone that way.
People who have a certain reputation can eventually find themselves being
led down other paths. Lots of times people who have been typecast, such
as Lee Marvin who has been typecast as a “heavy,” can eventually break
out and become a star through a good role in which they’ve been typecast. It’s just the way the cards fall. It’s always whether or not the part is good that makes the difference to me.
INTERVIEWER: Which role would you consider to be your favorite:’
DAVISON: The Elephant Man. It’s the best written pan I’ve ever done. It’s
just a wonderful part.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any particular interest in the horror/ science fiction genre and do you collect memorabilia from any of these films?
DAVISON: I used to. When I was younger I was really into monster magazines. When I was younger, I lived in Philadelphia, and there was
this guy named “Roland” who later went on the become “Zacherley.” Me was always a big hero of mine, and we all used to dress up like him in
the neighborhood. We would part our hair in the middle and chase each other around with chains. (Laughter)